This past weekend was a long weekend here in Canada so Julian and I went for a bike ride on Monday afternoon. We rode along the Don Valley trail which was a good thing for me since it meant very few hills. Because it was a beautiful day and a holiday for many, the path was busy with walkers, cyclists and runners.
About 45 minutes into our ride, we noticed several people stopped ahead of us in a small cluster, all looking and pointing in the same direction. Julian noticed it first and since he was leading our little outing, he stopped along the path until I caught up. He told me what everyone was a looking at: a deer, not 50 feet away from us. Two deer in fact, just meandering along the bushes, while people pointed at that them from one direction and cars on the highway above roared past them on the other. They didn’t seem spooked by either and just sauntered along their path, munching on leaves and berries.
Naturally I was thrilled and I got off my bike and proceeded to take 5 or 6 shitty pictures. Other people stopped too and we all stood and watched the deer go about their day in this noisy, populated urban valley. Several times the deer looked right at their audience and seemed completely nonplussed by the attention.
The crowd thinned out as the deer moved away from the area and we got on our bikes and continued on our journey. It was then that I remembered a trip I went on years ago with my mom. We went on a cruise to the Caribbean and we were standing on the ship’s deck. The ship was moving at a pretty hefty speed and my mom and I were standing there, feeling the warm breeze in our hair and looking out over the beautiful colours of the water. Suddenly my mom yelled, “Look!” and pointed towards the side of the ship. There, swimming alongside the ship were four dolphins. Not just swimming either: leaping out of the water in perfectly synchronized movements and almost going as fast as the ship. Never in our lives had we seen dolphins in their natural habitat and no theme park will ever come close to recreating that magic.
As Julian and I stood with a group of strangers on Monday to watch a deer eat leaves and sniff the ground, I was struck by how in awe people can be of nature and animals, particularly ones we don’t get a chance to see everyday. We see certain animals in their natural habitat all of the time: birds, squirrels, raccoons. They’re a part of surroundings so we probably don’t give them a second thought much less stand in awe of them and their behaviour. Most of us don’t think to harm them when we see them either. I couldn’t help but wonder: what if we saw pigs or chickens or turkeys or cows everyday? What if they were just roaming in front of us at their leisure, in their natural habitat, just being allowed to do what they do? I suspect people would stand in that same awe and their first thought wouldn’t be, Gee, I wonder what their flesh tastes like between two pieces of bread?
Of course, I was also reminded that not everyone would stand in awe. Ellen DeGeneres’ pokes fun at this on her 1996 stand-up album where she does a bit called “Camping and Hunting”. She tells a story of when she was camping and saw a family of four deer stop in front of her. After she goes on to describe how cute and gentle they are, she says to herself, “Awww, I wish I had a gun.”
I think what made most of us stop on the path that day (other than to load our guns) was not just the chance to see deer up close in their natural habitat. I think it’s also because life – living, breathing life – is, in of itself, fascinating. Though we interact and see it everyday with our own species and other animal species, we’re not awed by it because we’re surrounded, often bombarded, with it everyday. But when we stumble across a living being we don’t get to see outside of a zoo or a photo, we are compelled to stop and be reminded of what truly matters: Life. Freedom. A place to belong.
That same Monday, in another part of the city, a deer actually stopped traffic for two hours when it wandered onto the expressway. She was eventually chased off the highway, tranquilized and taken to safe location. Although the commuters were probably pissed at the delay, I don’t think anybody’s first reaction was to kill her so they could get on with their day. Most people were actually pleased that it had a happy ending: no one was hurt and the deer made it to safety. There’s even a photo of one of the Police Officers on the scene taking a picture of the deer as she was carried off on a stretcher. For an Officer who has presumably been in more unusual scenarios than the average citizen, what made him stop and take a picture of this particular moment, of this particular animal?
Author John Robbins once said, “Put a baby in a crib with an apple and a rabbit. If the baby plays with the apple and eats the rabbit, I’ll buy you a car.” Most of us are awed by nature and animals at some point. We need to be reminded that even though we don’t see all aspects of them all of the time, they have every right to be here and we need to start treating all animals with the same respect as a random deer sighting on a Monday afternoon. Especially the ones we continue to eat.